By Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
David Zinn bought his Fifth Street house across from Bach Elementary 20 years ago partly because of the playground and big field out back.
And for 20 years, he’s been looking out his kitchen window at a concrete, graffiti-peppered wall in the distance.
“I always wanted to make it a happier wall than it seemed to be,” said Zinn, the Ann Arbor commercial artist responsible for all the popular street artwork downtown.
After he and a like-minded neighbor, Bob Miller, got the ball rolling, Bach art teacher Kim Furey applied for and received a Great Ideas Grant through the AAPS Educational Foundation to pay for Zinn’s services to paint a mural on the wall.
As a finishing touch, Bach fifth graders (and one class of fourth graders) were invited this week to leave their mark on the mural before they go on to middle school next year.
Fifth grader Livia Johnson drew a Cheshire cat on the wall, working from a drawing she’d created in art class for the occasion.
“It’s a good remembrance to show we were here,” she said, pausing for a moment. “It just kinda makes me happy.”
Sports fanatic Cullen Perkey chose to leave his legacy in the form of a snowboarder.
“I really think it’s a great opportunity for people who want to show their work but they’re not a famous artist—like me, actually,” said the fifth grader. “I really thank David Zinn, who brought this whole thing up. It’s a great idea.”
“As an art teacher,” said Furey, “I believe it is important and beneficial for my students, who someday will be responsible civic minded citizens of their communities to learn about and be able to answer the questions of, `What is public art, the creation of public art, who decides what is public art, the many benefits of public art, and who is the public for public art?’”
She said the students’ participation in this mural creation has given them the opportunity to explore all these questions and discover their answers.
“My students have had the chance to see how David’s and their efforts have enhanced the quality of their school’s and surrounding community’s environment by creating a more welcoming, beautiful atmosphere that encourages a heightened sense of place,” she said. “The realized results are the enhancement of a space that embraces both the school and neighborhood, creating memorable experiences for all.”
The area is a playground and soccer field at recess during the day, a completely different environment after dinner when families and dog walkers use it, followed sometimes by a spot for graffiti artists late at night, said Zinn.
“I’m not opposed to graffiti per se, but I’d prefer a higher quality of graffiti than what we were getting on this wall,” he said with a smile. “Since I do a lot of street art, I already understand the desire to tag a sad wall because a lot of walls really want love, and I think graffiti in some forms is a way to try to show you care enough to put something on this wall so it’s not just a grey massive thing.”
He hopes that graffiti artists will recognize the difference between a sad barren wall and one that’s been cared for.
“But if it still inspires somebody to add some art to it, I just hope they do it in a way that adds to it,” he said.
Zinn has enjoyed getting to know his neighbors the past few weeks. Several of them power-washed the wall, which removed some of the old layers of peeling paint.
“It’s the neighborhood putting their fingers in this wall to claim it,” he said.
Neighbor Amy Cook, who with her two children helped paint the wall grey over the Memorial Day weekend, agreed that the project has helped unify the neighborhood.
“That’s the best thing to come out of this,” she said.
The project also received support from volunteers who cleaned and prepped the wall. Humantech, Inc., an Ann Arbor company, sent more than 50 employees to beautify the entire playground by removing old equipment, mending a fence and pulling overgrowth.
The mural of trees, grass and clouds is a deliberately improvisational scene designed to work with all the imperfections, water seepage, and cracks in the wall.
So if the wall continues to crumble, Zinn said, that’s fine.
The students’ markings to the mural make it more real, more claimed, and a better piece of art, Zinn said.
“You can already tell if you step away to the other side of the playground, these images—these very individualized markings that every student is making—become one texture that makes the grass look more real than when it’s just flat green,” Zinn said. “So if done properly, it’s going to achieve both individuality and a sense of community at the same time, depending on how far away you are.”
Fifth grade teacher Anita Ringo says the project is fantastic because it combines so many things she wants the kids to learn and experience in school.
“They get to be part of a whole; they get to see their unique contributions going to something as a whole that’s greater than each little piece; they get to be creative,” she said. “David is very inspirational. When he talks to the kids, he talks about how when he was in school, all he wanted to do was draw things on stuff … so he’s very inspiring to kids who have that turn of mind. And he’s letting them all participate in their own way. So this is their school; they’re taking ownership of it. They get to leave their mark on it. They get to be part of something beautiful. It’s just a great project.”